Jay Inslee Has Already Lost (the Press)
Can Inslee Get a Fair Shake from Journalists Convinced He's Going to Lose?
Washington's gubernatorial race is the third hottest in the nation, according to national political news site Politico. The site led off its latest rankings with an unrhetorical question about Democrat Jay Inslee's campaign: "Can it possibly be successful with such an unwelcoming reception from the local media?"
The commentary caused some local wags to wag their fingers at Inslee for his perceived shortcomings, as if the "unwelcoming reception" was entirely his own fault. But I think Politico's very legitimate query raises an even larger question: Can Inslee possibly get a fair shake from local media that have all but marked Republican Rob McKenna's inauguration on their calendars?
Probably not. I base that assessment on four factors that have little to do with anything the Inslee campaign has or has not done:
1. The editorial boards are totally and irrevocably in McKenna's pocket.
I've got a pretty good track record predicting editorial endorsements, and I'd wager that McKenna will receive every single daily-newspaper endorsement in the state. It's a done deal. It's not even worth Inslee trying. The editorial boards all want McKenna to win, and there's no shaking them from that conviction.
2. Beat reporters are all but convinced that McKenna will win.
At McKenna's campaign kickoff last June (the part I wasn't kicked out of), the chatter among the presumably nonpartisan hacks was that Inslee has slightly better than a snowball's chance in hell of beating McKenna, a sentiment I continue to hear despite a spate of recent polls suggesting otherwise. I'm not implying that most reporters want Inslee to lose—but they don't particularly like being proven wrong, either. And so the meme that Inslee is running a lackluster, ineffectual campaign tends to reinforce itself by coloring the coverage.
Inslee has never quite gotten the coverage he deserves (like for the crucial Medicare reimbursement provision he brokered, worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Washington State, and announced at a July 2009 press conference where I was one of only two journalists to show up). But even more of a hurdle for Inslee than the lack of regard many journalists have for him is the overinflated opinion they have of his opponent, an impression McKenna has meticulously cultivated through media messaging and ego massage:
"I... wanted to express my condolences on the show," McKenna's communications director Janelle Guthrie e-mailed me shortly after 710-KIRO canceled my radio show in 2008. "I know AG McKenna enjoyed being your guest," Guthrie continued, "and we were hoping to join you again."
Yeah. Sure they were.
Guthrie is good. I had tons of elected officials on my show, but only McKenna sent me a condolence note. From the reporter shield law he championed, to his frequent media and public appearances, to his office's efforts to soften even "partisan hacks" like me, McKenna has run an eight-year, 24/7 PR campaign. And it's paid off.
3. Cynical journalists see Democratic hegemony as part of the problem.
To be fair, there's a certain logic to the argument that an extended period of one-party rule can stifle innovation while institutionalizing inefficiencies—a logic 28 years of Democratic governors haven't done much to refute. And it's particularly easy to get behind this meme when 95 percent of your job is covering the 5 percent of things that government does wrong while ignoring the 95 percent that government does right.
I'm not implying that reporters are consciously dissing Inslee because they think Republican control would be good for a change. But if they were honest with themselves, most reporters would admit that they buy into this conventional wisdom. And that can't help but color their perception.
4. A McKenna victory would be the best thing that could happen to the state's political press corps.
Think about it. If McKenna wins, he would become the first Republican to capture the governor's mansion in this reliably blue state since 1980, an accomplishment that would instantly propel him onto the short list of Republican presidential candidates for 2016. Really. And if McKenna gains an instant national audience, so too might many of the reporters covering him.
Honestly, McKenna could be my meal ticket, my own personal Sarah Palin. And don't think other journalists haven't had the same thought.
Again, I'm not suggesting that any reporter has consciously skewed his or her coverage in the service of some future personal gain, but there's little doubt that a governor Mc-Kenna would be a helluva lot more interesting and rewarding to cover than a governor Inslee. So, you know, the incentive is there.
I don't expect any of my colleagues to appreciate this analysis; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them found it offensive.
Still, it's hard to argue with my core theses: The editorial boards are in McKenna's pocket, the press does believe that McKenna will likely win, they do think a change of regime might shake things up for the good, and a McKenna ascendancy would be great for our careers.
Whether any of this is enough to shape the media's putatively objective coverage of this race, well, I suppose that's subjective. But in my opinion, it already has.